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I always recommend people to look into purchasing an America the Beautiful national park pass if they are planning on visiting a few federal lands in the next year. The pass can save you money on your park visits but there are also several different versions of the pass that can get you into parks for free or at a highly discounted rate if you meet certain criteria, such as being 62 or older, being in the military, or entering the 4th grade. Here’s an overview of the America the Beautiful national park pass program and what you need to consider when purchasing a pass.
What is a National Park Pass?
When you visit a national park like the Grand Canyon you can purchase a pass for that single visit (usually good for up to seven days) or you can even purchase an annual pass to that specific park.
In some states such as Utah, you can purchase a state/region-specific national park pass. For example, the Southeast Utah Parks Pass ($50) will get you access to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and Natural Bridges National Monument for one year.
Or you can take advantage of the annual national park pass that will give you access to that park and many other federal lands throughout the US.
In 2004, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act created the America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, which allows the public to purchase annual and even lifetime passes to members of Interagency Pass Program, including National Park Service sites.
There are several different types of passes including:
- Annual Pass
- US Military national parks pass
- Annual 4th grade pass
- Senior Pass
- Access Pass
- Volunteer pass
I’ll discuss each on in this article and show you how to purchase them. But it’s worth noting from the beginning that many popular national parks will soon be increasing in price so the annual passes will likely become even more worth it in the future.
The standard America the Beautiful national park annual pass is what most people will be buying. The annual pass costs $80.
How do I get a national park pass?
There are three ways you can purchase the annual pass:
- Visit a federal recreation site in person — you can find a site near you by checking out the list of federal recreation sites that issue passes here.
- By phone — you can call 888-ASK USGS (1-888-275-8747), extension 3 (Hours of operation are: 8 am to 4 pm Mountain Time)
- Online—You can go online and buy it from the USGS store.
- You can also purchase these from REI.
Where can I use my pass?
The passes are valid at more than 2,000 Federal recreation sites where Entrance or Standard Amenity Fee(s) (Day use fees) are charged by the following agencies:
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
- Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation)
- Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)
- USDA Forest Service (USDA FS)
- National Park Service (NPS)
- US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)
Keep in mind that many federal land sites are free.
Who can use the National Park pass?
The annual pass allows the pass owner and accompanying passengers in a single, private, non-commercial vehicle to enter Federally operated recreation sites across the country.
Note that RVs are defined as non-commercial.
The pass covers the pass owner and three (3) accompanying adults age 16 and older at sites where per person entrance fees are charged. No entry fee charged for children 15 and under. Note that photo identification will be required to verify ownership.
What if I lose my national park pass?
Passes are non-refundable, non-transferable and cannot be replaced if lost or stolen.
So if you lose your annual pass, there’s no way for you to get it back without paying $80 for a new pass.
However, if your pass is damaged, you can usually send it in and get re-issued a new pass for $10 so long as your identifying details are still on the pass.
How long is my national park pass good for?
The pass will be valid for one full year from month of purchase (through last day of that month). So if you purchase the pass at the beginning of the month, you can get close to 13 months of use from your annual pass before the date of expiration.
US Military national parks pass
Active US military members and their dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, as well as most members of the US Reserves and National Guard are given free free annual passes.
In order to obtain that pass, proper military ID is required (CAC Card or DoD Form 1173). You can read more about the national parks pas for military members here.
Note that retired military and veterans are not currently offered free annual passes. However, if you are disabled as determined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration, you may qualify for the Access Pass (more on that below).
4th grade pass national park pass
The 4th grade national park pass is part of the Every Kid in Park initiative which was created “so fourth graders and their families could discover our wildlife, resources, and history for free.” It’s really a brilliant strategy to ensure that more of our youth grow up with a fascination and appreciation of our parks, making them more likely to help protect them for future generations.
Note that unlike other passes, this pass is only valid for the school year so it expires August 31st of that school year. Thus, it’s really important to get this pass as soon as possible.
How to qualify for the 4th Grade Pass?
Only U.S. 4th grade students (including home-schooled and free-choice learners 10 years of age) with a printed voucher from the Every Kid in a Park website can receive the 4th grade pass. Note that you must have a valid voucher to get this pass!
How do I get the 4th grade pass?
The 4th grader must complete the web based activity on the Every Kid in a Park website, and then they will be awarded their voucher package for printing.
Once your 4th grader arrives at the participating Federal recreation site they may exchange their Every Kid in a Park voucher for the Annual 4th grade Pass. A list of sites that issue passes is available.
Tip: It’s recommended to contact the Federal land you will be visiting in advance to ensure that they have the pass available.
Just like the other passes, the pass owner must be present when the pass is used and it is not transferrable. However, if you lose this pass you can get a new one by visiting the website and signing up again.
Who can use the National Park 4th grade pass?
If you visit a site that charges entrance fees per person, the 4th grade pass admits all children under 16 and up to three adults for free.
National Parks Senior Pass
The Senior Pass will offer a discounted rate to U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over.
You’ll need to prove your residence and age with documentation which could include:
- A U.S. State or Territory issued Driver’s License
- Identification or Birth Certificate
- A U.S. Passport or Passport Card
- A Permanent Resident Card (Green Card)
The pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person).
The pass also provides discounts for Expanded Amenity Fees (such as camping, swimming, boat launching, and guided tours).
This biggest thing to note is that there are two different types of Senior Passes. One pass isa lifetime national parks pass which costs $80 while the annual senior pass only costs $20. You can read more about the national parks senior pass here.
The Access Pass is a special pass offered to United States citizens or permanent residents, regardless of age, that have a permanent disability.
There is no cost for the Access Pass but you will need to provide documentation that you have a permanent disability, which could include:
- A statement signed by a licensed physician attesting that you have a permanent physical, mental, or sensory impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and stating the nature of the impairment; OR
- A document issued by a Federal agency, such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration, which attests that you have been medically determined to be eligible to receive Federal benefits as a result of blindness or permanent disability. Other acceptable Federal agency documents include proof of receipt of Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI); OR
- A document issued by a State agency such as a vocational rehabilitation agency, which attests that you have been medically determined to be eligible to receive vocational rehabilitation agency benefits or services as a result of medically determined blindness or permanent disability. Showing a State motor vehicle department disability sticker, license plate or hang tag is not acceptable documentation.
Here is the application form.
Volunteer national park pass
If you volunteer for 250 hours worth of activities pre-approved by a Volunteer Coordinator, you can earn a free annual national park pass.
You don’t have to complete all of the 250 hours in a single year but they do all need to be signed off and properly logged. You’ll work with your local Federal recreation site supervisor or Volunteer Coordinator/Manager to track your hours.
Once you meet the 250 volunteer hour requirement and receive your pass, a pass is issued, your hours are reset to zero and the count begins again.
You can accrue 250 hours by volunteering on Federal recreation lands managed by one or all of five agencies – NPS, BLM, USDA FS, FWS, and Reclamation.
You can visit Volunteer.gov for more information on this option.
Showing your passes to the parks
If you’ve visited a lot of national park sites or federal recreation sites, you’ve probably noticed that not all federal recreation sites that have entrance stations. And in many cases, there are no staff members at the entrance station.
So what are you to do when you have a national park pass and there’s nobody there to show it to? Well, you have a few options.
A national park pass can either be displayed on your rearview mirror using a free hangtag or on your dashboard with the signature side showing. But note that the hangtag itself is only a way to display your national park pass, and is not valid for entry unless you have a valid pass inside it.
If you own an open-topped vehicle, such as a jeep or motorcycle, you can get a free decal to put on your vehicle that serves as proof of payment at sites that don’t have a staffed entrance station.
- Decals are issued on annual basis, even for owners of lifetime Senior/Access passes
- Decals are NOT valid for entry at staffed entrance sites (you’ll need your pass in those instances)
- Decals must be obtained in person and you must show the following: your Pass, driver’s license and vehicle registration and the name on all three documents must match.
- All sites that issue passes issue free hangtags
Final word on the national park pass
I think it’s a great idea to consider purchasing a national park pass. If you’re going to visit a few parks a year that charge $35 to $30 then you can quickly come out on top with a few visits each year. But there are also many ways to get into the parks for free so you should always be on the lookout for different ways to qualify for discounts or free passes.
H-Town based Attorney turned credit card rewards expert. Founder of UponArriving.com.